Saturday, August 12, 2006

It’s a long, long way to Kalkaringi – the Wave Hill walk-off History War

Actually, it’s more like a not-so-long walk to Daguragu (from Kalkaringi), but such rather lacks headline oomph.

In a few days, it will be the fortieth anniversary of the Wave Hill walk-off (or the first of two or three such walk-offs, at least). Duly following their scripts from central casting, the Age has run a worthy, brief article anticipating the milestone, while today’s Australian carries two long articles eviscerating it.

Quoth Nicolas Rothwell:

But there's a problem with [the standard Wave Hill walk-off] story: it is inaccurate in almost every detail . . . For the pastoral managers, [the mid-late 1960s were] a transformative moment: suddenly they were free of their obligations to their Aboriginal residents. They hired small, efficient workforces, and the development of the NT cattle industry into a modern, high-value business began. This story is told in the relentlessly detailed Distance, Drought and Dispossession, by the horsebreaker-turned-PhD Glen McLaren and his research partner William Cooper from Curtin University. In its quiet shredding of the establishment version of Aboriginal labour history, it makes the revisionism of Keith Windschuttle seem a Sunday outing in the park. (same URL)

That last line’s a mighty big claim, Nicolas. Perhaps rather than Keith Windschuttle you mean Michael Connor; a baby-boomer and Windschuttle fellow-traveller, who like Glen McLaren (also a boomer, at a wild guess), came to academia late, saw a market niche, and stuck to it – viz, instead of just being an Annoying Mature-Age Student in class, they could get a zillion times more ROI, crucially without very much additional labour, by becoming the Annoying Mature-Age Footnote Pedant in the OpEd pages.

Rothwell is all the more disappointing for the fact of his being a Territory local. A Southerner might be forgiven for writing this tosh:

To mark the 40th anniversary of the strike . . . a large festival is being staged next weekend at the twin communities of Kalkaringi and Daguragu, which have grown up around the waterholes where Lingiari and his followers first camped. (same URL)

Rothwell however, is just being lazy and inaccurate. Kalkaringi and Daguragu (which are about 10 km apart, BTW) should not lightly be called “twin communities”. Kalkaringi is a former “Welfare Settlement” (a sort of a secular mission, or open-air jail), while Daguragu was the ultimate destination of the protracted walk-off/strike, only being reached and settled in March 1967 (before this date, it was thought fit only for Vestey’s cattle, despite its attractive location). (There were two interim camps at Kalkaringi after the initial ~20 km walk from the labour camp* at Wave Hill Station , first in the Victoria River bed, deliberately away from the Welfare buildings, and then hard by the Welfare/Police buildings during the wet season of 1966-67).

Further, while Daguragu has indeed “grown up around [a] waterhole”, Kalkaringi hasn’t, and couldn’t. Quite apart from its Welfare Department baggage, is its equally unfortunate aspect:

[In 1968], plans were revealed to construct houses for Aboriginal families. Of course there was no consultation with the Gurindji as to the siting of these dwellings which were built on the area known as the ‘drovers common’ a treeless, barren, dusty tract of land which was not part of the Wave Hill Pastoral Lease and which was subject to flooding. The area is now known as Kalkaringi.

That in 2006, the walk-off is still half-stuck, as it were, in Kalkaringi (and all that goes with that) might have been a worthwhile line for Rothwell to pursue. Instead, he chooses to run with a highly-skewed interpretation of the walk-off’s failure, particularly in terms of the now Indigenous-owned Daguragu cattle station failing to make a go of it, compared to the thriving non-Indigenous-owned pastoral leases around it:

The Daguragu cattle property set up for the strikers has been deserted for 15 years, as a culture of dependency on government handouts has gripped the region.

That’s strange, I though when I read this – whatever happened c. 1990, it certainly wasn’t a sudden government handout bonanza. It didn’t take much Googling to solve the mystery, though:

In August 1986 . . . I was disappointed to see helicopters mustering cattle [at Daguragu station] and to learn the Gurindji were paid $50 a head compensation for stock destroyed in the T.B. & Brucellosis eradication campaign when there were serious doubts they were infected. The enterprise was being run by accountants from Katherine and an appointed white manager who did not appear to consult with the Aborigines and was not implementing a training programme to teach the young men stock working skills.

Yes, the Gurindji should carry some of the blame here. But Rothwell’s simplistic explanation of welfare as suddenly sapping the Gurindji’s will to work c. 1990 is patent rubbish. Making this worse is Rothwell’s lack of acknowledgment of past injustices, which were by no means confined to unwaged-labour, loss of land, and the odd massacre. As William Deane reminded us in 1996:

Section 46 of the Wards' Employment Ordinance of the Northern Territory (1953) prohibited enticing or persuading an Aborigine who was a ward "to leave his lawful employment".

In addition, Indigenous employees who were injured at work (common enough in the cattle industry, of course) could not claim workers’ compensation at the time.

Finally, this time pedantically dubious, is Rothwell’s imputation that at Daguragu station has been empty of cattle, and so unproductive until quite recently:

Over the past three years, 10 grazing licences covering more than 14,000sqkm have been set up.

Such may be more recent news for other Indigenous-owned stations, but Daguragu cattle station has been externally leased since at least August 2002 (same URL)

Which killer-point by me makes the footnote-obssessiveness of Keith Windschuttle et al seem a Sunday outing by the waterhole, eh Nicolas? Like Kalkaringi is to Daguragu, you're close, so close - but still so far away.

* “Vesteys had bulldozed the aboriginal camp within days of the Gurindji walking off to avoid national press focus on housing, which could only be described as dog kennels or humpies” (same URL)

Mick rangiari's funeral service will take place at Kalkringi on 15 December 2006. I went to the site of the old Wave Hill homestead on 17 August this year with Billy Bunter Jampajinpa and Jimmy Wavehill. The pre-walkoff living conditions they described were unbelievably appalling. The working conditions were equally bad and everyone knows about the wages situation. I then went to see the ailing Hoppy Mick rangiari. Of course he wasn't always "Hoppy". He broke his hip from a horse fall in the course of his employment, was left in a shed for 5 days without medical attention and the hip had started to set incorrectly before someone thought he might need medical care. he was severely disabled but a Workman's Compensation claim failed because he was a ward of the state. And on and on it went...But no, none of that was ever important and none of it justified leaving Wavehill Station when good wages and working conditions were just around the corner. What rubbish.
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